Commentary: A warning to domestic partners — Department of Health is throwing a Big Wedding June 30
On June 30, 2014, in Washington State some registered domestic partnerships will be converted to marriage as defined by Referendum 74. Under the law signed by Governor Chris Gregoire in February of 2013, the Department of Health is responsible for the conversion from registered domestic partnership to a marriage license. It is critical that each partner understands how their rights and responsibilities change with the new law and exactly what date their new marriage licenses is valid. Couples contemplating marriage generally discuss relevant issues over time, with the deadline looming it is important that some of these ramifications be discussed prior to the conversions.
Not all couples will be affected, but the largest group is same-sex couples where both people are under 62. Although many same-sex couples fought hard for the right to marry, the social and financial obligations that marriage carries may not be completely understood. Some things couple should consider are whether a prenuptial agreement is in order, what is the status of any children under the age of 18, property ownership, and how does the pending marriage change any existing wills, durable powers of attorney, or establishment of trusts. Partners need to be clear about the date that the new marriage will be binding; in some cases the marriage license could be retroactive. This date can cause problems down the road with distribution of assets during a divorce or after one spouse’s death.
There are three classifications of domestic partnerships that are excluded from the conversion. Opposite-sex domestic partners where both partners are under the age of 62 are exempt from the conversion and the partnership with become invalid on June 30, 2014. Only Washington State registered domestic partnerships will be converted, domestic partnerships from other states will not be converted. The law also excludes opposite sex couples and same sex couples with one partner over the age of 62. The age exclusion allows for couples to retain ownership over retirement incomes and [other issues].
Couples are left with three possible courses of action. If couples are part of the group being converted, the partners should consider the legal and financial ramifications. As with all marriages in Washington State, all property is community property unless held out as separate from the marriage. This becomes important in the case of a large different in income between the spouses. Partners will become each other’s heirs, owe taxes, and have state survivor benefits, but will also become liable for any debts incurred.
If domestic partners fall outside the law and will not be converted, but do wish to be married, they will need to apply for a license and take the steps necessary to complete that process. If the couple’s domestic partnership is rendered void, but they wish to continue the legal commitments through contractual means, they need to create several documents to establish the mutual rights and responsibilities.
The last group is partners who are in the categories expected to convert who do not wish to become married or are actively getting married prior to the conversion date. These partners must take steps prior to June 30th to avoid the conversion or marriage by default if they have already obtained a marriage license. Couple seeking dissolution or those who have already dissolved a domestic partnership should contact the Secretary of State to show proof of dissolution so that they can be removed from the list being issues marriage licenses. Also, those who have within the 90-day waiting period for dissolution should declare this action. Partners who are planning to marry prior to June 30 also need to notify the Secretary of State with their license or intentions so that the state does not issue two licenses.
Kokie Adams is a Snohomish County Trust and Estates lawyer who can help with the issues raised in this article. If couples or individuals have questions about how the new law applies to their specific circumstances please contact her at Purcell & Adams or direct questions to the Secretary of State at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-725-0377.